Starry, starry night


I had a long distance relationship with a man in New York. We’d been together for a year when he moved there from London and every time I went to see him for the weekend on a Friday night, flying straight from work and landing late evening, he had never bought milk for my tea. Like a crack addict, I needed my tea so badly that I started bringing those little pots of milk from the plane with me. Every time his fridge was bare I would dig out my warm, acrid milk pot from my bag and peel back its tiny lid.

On this one particular trip I wanted to see The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).  Since the first time I saw it, those eternal, golden, swirling, unanswered, questioning spirals captivated me. I hung it on my teenage bedroom wall alongside fellow masterpieces Michael J Fox and Ralph Macchio.

“Shall we go and see it?”

“No, I’ve already been to the MoMA, let’s just chill out today.”

“I haven’t been. I have to see it. I want to. It’s just up the road and I love it so much.”

“You sound about three!”

“I painted it in pastels at school. I got an A!”

“So why do you need to see it, you know better than most what it looks like.”

“I know what it looks like it. That’s why I want to see it.”

“Ok, so see it.”

“I’ll go tomorrow.”


I went to see The Starry Night alone and I guess that’s the best way to see something that you love. Your emotions can run wild without fear of the person next to you ruining everything by saying “It’s very gaudy” or “Did you see a toilet on your way in?” It was a highlight of all of my trips to New York, because while I wanted to climb tall buildings, he didn’t. I had to force him up the World Trade Centre and, after practically begging him to go up, it’s lucky that we did because four weeks later it was decimated.

When I arrived at London Heathrow late on that cold Sunday night I headed straight for the small supermarket to pick up milk for a cup of tea at home. As my eyes adjusted to the bright lights of the shop, I grabbed a basket and heard the opening bars to Don Mclean’s Vincent over the shop’s audio system. It’s the song with the opening line “Starry, starry night” and is written about the painter and painting I had visited that weekend. It was the closest thing to a cosmic hug I had ever had. He should have at least bought you milk, the universe seemed to say. At least.

I have shared this silly ‘cosmic hug’ story for years, particularly when I’m raging bitterly about long distance relationships and wasted years. This song, not one that you hear very often, revisited me during a trip to London earlier this year. Now a mother of three beautiful children with a man who would visit every art gallery if we had the time, which now of course we don’t, I had a rare night away in a London hotel for a work reunion. It had been my first job in journalism and in London, and was the very essence of me before children, before New York, before anything.

After checking in and billowing about unencumbered for a couple of hours in the room, I switched on my favourite radio show, one that I listen to every Saturday afternoon to feel like “me” again in amongst the chaos of family life. As I put my shoes on, a cover version of a song I recognised came on. Vincent. I immediately thought of my moment in the airport supermarket all those years ago.

Just before I left my room a text message beeped my phone. It was from Sue, my old boss. “Dermot O’Leary is sitting in the pub where we are. Hurry!” The DJ who had played Vincent had just finished his show and was having a drink in the pub where I was headed. The universe suddenly felt very small. I missed Dermot, despite undignified running all the way to the pub, but that’s life.

Two weeks later, my wonderful Auntie passed away. Standing in my kitchen, exactly a week after I knew she had passed away, I decided to switch on the radio to try to ease my broken heart. And I swear, in the instant I pressed the ‘on’ button and at once heard the first bar of the song, I knew I was going to be OK.

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul

Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night

You took your life, as lovers often do
But I could’ve told you Vincent
This world was never meant for
One as beautiful as you

Starry, starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frame-less heads on nameless walls
With eyes that watch the world and can’t forget

Like the strangers that you’ve met
The ragged men in ragged clothes
The silver thorn of bloody rose
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow

Now I think I know
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will

  1 comment for “Starry, starry night

  1. Kevin Carey
    September 13, 2015 at 9:43 pm

    A beautiful story filled with passion and emotion……………………………………………..

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